Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Silent Scream

(editor's note - This blog entry was completed and posted on July 4. The entry date is showing as July 1, as the software uses the date on which the first draft was saved.)

Marc Faber was on Bloomberg TV today and he mentioned that the higher reported consumer inflation rates in Asia were a function of lower per capita GDP and a higher proportion of income spent on food and fuel - which are nearly the only prices that are rising aggressively. Common sense right? But of course that really made me start thinking - always a dangerous prospect.

Asia, Inc.

So Asia's consumer "basket" looks a lot different than that of the average American or Western European. But there are other differences as well. Many Asian nations are resource-poor, major importers of either food, raw materials or both and they depend upon exports of manufactured goods to pay for those imports. Now, let's look at the situation from a slightly different perspective. The industrial sectors of Asian economies look much like any diversified manufacturing enterprise.

Similar to our notional enterprise, these nations' factory sectors buy raw materials and energy. They employ people, paying wages in the process and sell a finished product to a customer. Substitute "import" for buy and "export" for sell and it's actually a pretty good analogy. A few differences, instead of profits, these entities collectively produce a surplus for the nation and they are also responsible for feeding and housing their workforce like an old-fashioned company town to the extent that the workforce doesn't grow its own food.So how do current conditions affect our metaphorical manufacturer? Inputs costs are rising fairly fast overall, with oil being a spectacular example though most increases are far more sedate and a fair number of industrial inputs are falling in price. Just as important, labor costs are rising. This is an obvious corollary to rising living standards and wage costs have been rising by double digits across much of Asia for years. At the same time, demand for many of their products has been weakening as their key markets (US, Europe, Japan) drop into a coordinated recession. So raising prices significantly isn't a solution as they would quickly suffer loss of market share. These factory economies are backed into a corner as surely as domestic manufacturers, with rising costs and falling demand. The Asian suppliers have the additional burden of rising labors costs on top of that. They can choose either lower revenues, lower profit margins (surplus) or some of both.

Now let's look at factors that introduce some added complexity to the model. Instead of cutting wages, nations also have the option to devalue their currency. This effectively reduces labor costs though not other inputs if they are imported. Lower "profits" can take the form of actual margin compression at the individual companies or smaller surpluses in the trade account. The factory sectors of Asia have an additional burden of the industrial surplus having to subsidize food imports - which of course are rising in price fairly quickly also.

What we see then are economies that likely will have to accept either smaller surpluses, lower corporate profits, lower wages, weaker currencies or some combination of the above.

Theory meets fact

Normally, high inflation rates tend to be associated with weakness against other currencies. Rapid declines in domestic purchasing power usually are accompanied by lower international purchasing power - again common sense. This is doubly true if the high-inflation economy does not raise interest rates to restrain demand. CPI equivalents have been high and rising across Asia for some time now, yet the currencies - like most others have been gaining vs. the dollar. To make matters worse, real interest rates in those countries are negative as well and have been for some time. Consumer prices are going up faster in most Asian economies than even the worst-case numbers here in the US - for instance John Williams at Shadow Government Statistics.

It has been odd to see such currencies rising against the dollar but there are several factors that have contributed. First was the differential in growth rates. Second was the perception of deep trouble in the US financial system combined with the impression of unstoppable rise for Asia. Third was the systemic imbalance of trade. Well, now we see that the extenuating factors are all at least beginning to falter. Growth rates are falling across Asia and we believe this is only the beginning of a very deep retrenchment there. The perception has shifted and the false impression that Asia would be immune to the problems of the US has been broken. The terms of trade are also starting to shift as fewer goods are sold to the US and other export markets. US trade deficit remains relatively flat with less of a gap with Asia being offset by higher oil prices.

In light of these factors, we are seeing high CPI and deeply negative real interest rates catching up with many Asian nations. Significant, and in some cases quite large currency reversals have taken place. One of the worst is India, where double-digit CPI, twin structural deficits and a severe slowdown are the story. With CPI pushing 12% and policy rates between 6.0% and 8.5% it's no wonder the Rupee recently reversed - down over 10% vs the dollar this year. Similar situations are brewing in Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and China, not to mention Vietnam. With the exception of still-hyped China, these currencies have lost 5-14% against the dollar from their recent highs. It's taken a while but normal economic relationships seem to be asserting themselves.

As we mentioned above, these economies are in the midst of a squeeze that will push down revenues and profits as well as the currency. Despite significant drops in many regional exchanges, fundamental deterioration can drive this process much further. The potential for a currency kicker on the downside simply makes these markets even more attractive as shorts. Loss of confidence could inspire capital flight, which would devastate both the local stock markets and the currencies. Again, with the exception of China, these nations probably won't have to worry about their currencies being too strong for much longer.

The stock markets and currencies of Asia's industrializing nations are screaming but few people seem to be listening. They were key beneficiaries of the UDB and it's demise will hurt them in direct as well as indirect ways. But that is a subject for another post.

Tea Leaves
So, why does the dollar index still look so weak? The index really isn't a good indicator of the strength of the dollar against the world since it is a trade-weighted index. Note that the Euro accounts for 57.6% of the weight, with both the Pound and the Yen also in double digits. The policies of the Fed have done nothing to help the dollar but at this point, the weakness is just as much a tribute to the ambitions of the EU and Germany's near-pathological fear of inflation as they are the result of incompetence at the Fed (though there is plenty of that). I have almost nothing good to say about the Federal Reserve but they only deserve half of the credit for the decline of the dollar index.

1 comment:

gler said...

Any comments on this article? http://yellowroad.wallstreetexaminer.com/blogs/2008/06/30/k-wave-the-seasons/

It appears that different countries cannot really be on different parts on the cycle?